- - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THE ASTAIRES: FRED & ADELE
By Kathleen Riley
Oxford University Press. $27.95. 266 pages, illus.

As author Kathleen Riley makes clear in her well-researched and captivating dual biogra- phy, the book’s title may say “Fred & Adele,” but it is Adele Astaire’s name that should come first.

Yes, during their dancing partnership Fred was never anything less than marvelous. He received well-deserved accolades not only for his inspired dancing, but for his fine singing (“with a mere semblance of a voice” said one admiring critic) and comedic acting as well. But ever since childhood, when they first formed the act that would someday make them a theatrical phenomenon, it was big sister Adele (two years, eight months older than Fred) who was the star, the one audiences paid to see and critics were eager to praise.

She was cute, and her dancing was easily as good as Fred’s, but it was her indefinable but undeniable star quality, her “dare-devil spontaneity,” “careless exuberance” and “intuitive” and “improvisatory” artistry, that made her a sensation. Fred was a workhorse, practicing routines for long hours, always thinking of how the act could be improved.

Adele learned the routine, cracked a joke, went onstage and just did it. She gave the audience savvy, sassy, show-biz pizzazz and they ate it up. We all know how great a performer Fred was because we have seen his movies. But since Adele never made a movie, it might be useful to quote some of her adoring critics:

“[She is] a figure come out of Degas to a galloping ragtime tune … [she] has willfully wandered into the absurd world of musical comedy, but you feel it is not her natural element. She should be dancing by glow-worm light under entranced trees on a midsummer eve with a rout of elves, after drinking rose-dew.”

Ah, they don’t write reviews like that any more. Although Ms. Riley does not say so, Adele must have been like Louis Armstrong, another embodiment of the Jazz Age. Both figures entertained not only by great virtuosity but with an infectious spirit of pure joy.

If there is anything Ms. Riley, an Oxford-educated classical scholar and modern theater historian, does not know about the Astaires, it is probably not worth knowing. They were born in Omaha to Fritz Austerlitz, an Austrian immigrant who had unfulfilled dreams of success, and his wife, Johanna, known as Anna, an independent-minded woman whose love and guidance helped her children over many career rough spots. (She also chose their stage name.)

The book follows their progress: precocious talent, enhanced by good dance teachers, leading to a child’s act in vaudeville (but not as headliners), Broadway, and then, from 1923 to 1933, an unprecedented series of theatrical triumphs, including three hit shows written for them by their friends George and Ira Gershwin.

Broadway audiences admired them, and London audiences positively adored them with irrational exuberance. They became friends with the Prince of Wales, hobnobbed with the upper crust, and enjoyed every aristocratic minute of it. They had a few setbacks along the way, but their career was one in which every theatrical cliche applied: They were the toast of two continents, they were a class act, they stole the show, and they made it all look easy.

This is usually the point in a review in which the critic goes into the “and yet” mode. It goes something like this: “And yet, despite their success, there was a dark side to their relationship, with bitter sibling rivalry and terrible family secrets tormenting them.” But nothing of the sort happened. They had spats, especially about Fred’s choice of women, but they loved each other, believed in each other, worked well together, enjoyed their success with undisguised glee, and were, in the slang of the 1920s, as happy as clams.

In 1933, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and left show business. Some critics felt that Fred, without Adele, would be less than great. They were, as we know, wrong. He brought with him to the movies that same spirit of joy that his sister fairly radiated onstage.

Speaking of joy, entertainment today, in every medium, has many qualities to commend it: excitement, creativity, shock value (if that is what you like), high standards of professionalism, trenchant criticism of social ills and a variety of outlets for artistic endeavors. But what is lacking is the sense of joy the Astaires brought to their work, that fine, careless rapture that blesses us with its presence, a secular form of grace.

Today, we are offered a superabundance of anger and seriousness of purpose, and many of our entertainers have talent to burn. But if you want sheer joy these days, you have to rent or buy a DVD of, say, “Top Hat” or “Shall We Dance” or “Swing Time,” watch Fred and Ginger dance, and once again, find you are surprised by joy, as audiences once were by Adele and Fred.

William F. Gavin is the author of “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric” (Michigan State University Press, 2011).